5 Reasons Displaced and Refugee Children Need Schools
by Lúgh ó Braonáin
"In the devastating context of global conflict and displacement, education gives hope to refugee children and youth to envision and build a secure future." -António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Every society cherishes its children and tries to ensure that they are educated well. This provides them with the skills they need to function as adults, but also it teaches them about the rich cultural heritage that the community possesses.
However, for children who are displaced by conflict and natural disaster, there are additional reasons for us to think that education is essential. They are the reasons that, like many other humanitarian agencies, we strive to provide education in these circumstances.
1: Normalising childhood through education
Many displaced children have an experience of school in their pre-conflict life. This experience must continue. They need to see that their current situation will not last forever and they will pick up their lives where they left off when the conflict is over. Where they lose hope in having a normal future, they may develop feelings of hopelessness and nihilism: this must be avoided at all costs – the more normal they feel about themselves, the stronger they are. The more long-term their thinking, the better they are able to cope with the challenges they and their families currently face.
Children are supposed to be in school: they know that they should not become mini-adults before their time. School life re-enforces the family structure. When children are thrust prematurely into adulthood they often feel stresses inappropriate for their age – which can lead to conflicts with their parents or guardians.
A healthy school life is normal for a child. It involves play and imaginative thinking, the opportunity to be young.
2. Education helps a child build for the future
The goal for aid agencies in any conflict of situation of natural disaster is to try to return displaced children back into a functioning society as soon as safely possible. Helping children continue with the schooling of their home culture will make the journey back to peace easier. A 15 year old child who has been to school during displacement will be able to better contribute to the reconstruction of her or his society after the trauma of conflict is over.
3. Returning home and re-integration
In most conflicts there are displaced and non-displaced communities. When the conflict is over, these groups will need to re-integrate. Knowing that the whole community has been continuing in as far as possible with their education, will help break down barriers in the post conflict situation.
4. Keeping children safe and off the street
In displaced communities, there are a great many dangers for young people owing to the lack of structured community life. There is often very little for children to do other than carry out daily chores for the family. This means that children find themselves in situations where they can be put at risk – hanging around in gangs, coming into contact with age-inappropriate situations. This can lead them to get involved with petty crime or worse.
Schools are places of relative safety where children mix with people their own age under the caring supervision of trained teachers and youth workers. They are often the only safe, warm and dry spaces that children can avail of outside their own homes.
5. Monitoring their health
Schools are an ideal situation for the monitoring of the physical well-being of displaced children. Teachers, while not trained medics, can often spot health issues arising in their students. Aid agencies will regularly go to schools to ensure children are in good health, giving vaccinations and performing health check-ups when necessary.
Even parents and guardians can benefit from this healthcare monitoring when they come to the school. Schoolchildren are also a very useful open line of communication between aid agencies and the home.